ATHENS — Humbled. Subdued. Chastened. Those are just a few of the words that might describe the Georgia Bulldogs’ disposition as they resumed the football season on Monday.
You could also add undeterred, determined and refocused.
Certainly, this past Saturday’s 45-14 humiliation at the hands of Ole Miss brought the 25th-ranked Bulldogs (3-1, 1-1 SEC) down a notch, not to mention 13 places in the Associated Press Top 25 poll. But as alarming and enlightening as that loss was, it remains an unmitigated fact that Georgia’s slate could be wiped clean with an upset of 11th-ranked Tennessee (4-0, 1-0) on Saturday at Sanford Stadium.
So after admittedly wallowing in that demeaning defeat this past weekend, Georgia is rededicated and refocused as it turned its focus on the Vols Monday.
“Yeah, morale wasn’t up coming home. Shouldn’t be,” said Georgia head coach Kirby Smart, notably less defensive at his weekly news conference. “We just took a tough defeat. (Morale) wasn’t good, but it’s improved. We got to see some of the guys yesterday. They came over and stopped by. That’s a big part of today. Part of my job is making sure they understand that loss has been put behind us.”
Facing a Tennessee squad that can track its current rise to last year’s comeback win over the Bulldogs has made that task easier for the home team. Georgia led the Vols 24-3 with 3:43 remaining in the first half and Nick Chubb in the locker room last October. The Bulldogs’ star tailback had suffered a gruesome knee injury on the first play of the game, but his teammates had gone on to stake themselves to a three-touchdown lead anyway.
Then Tennessee scored, Sony Michel fumbled on a kickoff return and the Vols mounted a scintillating comeback on the way to a 38-31 victory that snapped a five-game Georgia winning streak in the series.
That win was strikingly similar to the one Tennessee just scored against Florida this past Saturday. The Vols fell behind 21-0 before mounting a sustained rally en route to a 38-28 victory. That ended the Gators’ 11-game winning streak in the series.
So now the Vols have been anointed as the new darlings of the East. And Georgia, after the Ole Miss bombardment, is being relegated to the role of division also-ran.
The Bulldogs’ aim is to rewrite that narrative, regardless of what happened this past week.
“Oh, no, my confidence is fine,” sophomore defensive lineman DaQuan Hawkins-Muckle insisted Monday. “I very much have confidence in my team, and I feel like we’re going to come out on top, cecause I believe in my band of brothers. We’re all together. We stick together. I’m very confident in my teammates.”
It would help if Hawkins-Muckle had all his teammates available for Saturday’s tilt, and whether he will remained very much up in the air. Chubb, who has been writing his own comeback narrative this season, did not practice Monday, two days after leaving the Ole Miss game with a left-ankle injury. More accurately, he was not present at Georgia’s practice during the eight-minute media viewing period.
Chubb’s injury did not appear serious. He was never helped off the field and was not noticeably limping when he accompanied the team to the locker room at halftime this past Saturday. Nevertheless, down 31-0 at intermission, he did not return for the second half.
Information has been cryptic since.
“He’s going to continue to rehab really hard,” Smart said Monday. “We’re obviously hopeful he’ll be able to do something, but we won’t know more until later in the week.”
But there is evidence that Chubb is supremely motivated to play in Saturday’s game. It was against the Vols, after all, that Chubb tore three ligaments in his left knee after being bumped out of bounds on Neyland Stadium’s notoriously loose turf.
Chubb shocked the college football world when he started the Bulldogs’ opener this season. He’s averaging 105.5 yards per game heading into Saturday’s contest.
“I’m pretty sure Nick’s going to want to play this game, after what happened last year,” senior center Brandon Kublanow said. “This is what he’s been working for, so I expect a lot out of Nick, and I expect he expects a lot out of himself.”
Of course, Georgia’s offensive line hasn’t made it easy on Chubb or any of Georgia’s other backs. The Bulldogs remain fifth in the league in rushing offense, though most of last Saturday’s 230 yards in the last 20 minutes when the game was well out of reach. Tennessee is eighth in the SEC against the run (141.0 ypg).
Reestablishing the ground game is priority one for this week. There is no shortage of motivation with Tennessee on the way the to town.
“We’ve always said around here ‘humility is a week away,'” Smart said. “When you talk about the SEC, you never get a chance to rest. All the teams we play are really good, well-coached teams. I’ve got a lot of respect for Tennessee. … We’ve got to show improvement at pretty much every position, especially from the last game. We’ve got to get after it this week and make sure our guys know what they’re in store for.”
After Saturday’s fall-to-Earth, they should.